At TIME, Rishi Iyengar reports that Pastor Gu Yuese of Zhejiang’s Chongyi Church has been detained on suspicion of embezzlement. Chongyi is currently the largest state-sanctioned Protestant Church in China.
Pastor Gu Yuese, also known as Joseph Gu, was placed under “residential surveillance in a designated location” — the official term for facilities known more commonly as “black jails” — in the city of Hangzhou last Thursday, according to U.S.-based Christian rights group China Aid.
Gu, who headed Hangzhou’s prominent Chongyi Church, was reportedly removed from his post by China’s Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), the Chinese Communist Party–sanctioned authority that regulates churches, 10 days prior to his detention. He had been vocal in his opposition to the government’s destruction of crosses atop church buildings in China’s Christian-dominated eastern province of Zhejiang, a campaign that began in 2014.
[…] The pastor’s wife Zhou Lianmei has also gone missing, and family members believe she has been taken into custody as well. [Source]
The probe may be linked to Gu’s involvement in opposition to the ongoing cross-removals. Authorities have claimed that the campaign is simply about planning enforcement, and not an attack on Christianity, but purportedly leaked official documents contradict this. Reuters’ Megha Rajagopalan reports:
Two Gu supporters in Zhejiang told Reuters by phone on Friday that they had not been able to get in touch with him, and he had recently sent a message to followers that was critical of the cross removal campaign. They declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.
It was unclear whether Gu’s investigation was linked to the note.
[…] Authorities in the region have said crosses are removed because they violate regulations against illegal structures. Rights groups say demolishing crosses restricts Christianity and religious freedoms. [Source]
Last July, Christian leaders in Wenzhou, Zhejiang took to the streets to protest against the government’s demolition campaign. According to Global Times, authorities in the province are currently drafting new rules to regulate the attachment of crosses on religious buildings.
At China Change, Pastor L. gave an overview of the history of Chongyi Church and its former role as a government “poster child” for religious freedom in China:
Following the rapid growth of Christianity in China, in 2000 the Hangzhou municipal government agreed to rebuild the church at a different location. In 2003, through to the great efforts of Pastor Gu and the donation of 40 million yuan (about $6 million) by congregants, after two years of construction work the new church was built and opened. Under the careful guidance and work of Gu, his wife, and their team, in just ten years the church had grown to be the largest evangelical congregation in China, holding up to 5,000 worshipers for a typical Sunday service. It is still the largest Chinese church in the world.
For the last decade, the Chong-yi Church has been used by Party propagandists as the poster child to show the world that China has religious freedom. Gu maintained active engagements both inside and outside China, often accompanying officials from the Communist Party’s Department of United Front Work and Administration for Religious Affairs to receive foreign guests, and maintaining contact with the North American Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
Pastor Gu was himself an exemplar of an evangelical believer in the official Chinese church system. Those close to him knew that although he was in the two government-controlled Christian bodies, (the Three-Self Patriotic Movement and the Christian Council), he devoted his chief efforts to his work as a pastor. Members of the clergy in China often cannot avoid being trapped in the space between politics, repressive by nature, and religion—but it seemed that Gu was able to effectively balance the two. […][Source]